Notes and Quotes: Van Jefferson and Tyrie Cleveland's Senior Bowl Practices

Zach Goodall

MOBILE, Ala -- With an intriguing performance from former Florida Gators wide receiver Van Jefferson on the first day of 2020 Senior Bowl practices, and given the late addition of Jefferson's teammate at Florida in receiver Tyrie Cleveland to the South team's roster, it felt fitting to focus solely on the wide receiver position on day two.

The duo didn't disappoint.

Jefferson has emerged as one of the Senior Bowl winners with strong days in one-on-ones and team drills. His route running prowess, which was well-noted during his two seasons at Florida, has commanded the attention of NFL scouts, coaches, and media alike.

"I think I work on that more than anything," Jefferson said of his route running on Tuesday during Senior Bowl media day. 

"All the times I get to go home to my dad and train with him, I take advantage of those opportunities because I don't get to see my dad that much. But, when I do see him we take advantage of those opportunities. So I think that's what made me a better route runner this year, because I had time in the summer to go back to New Jersey, get on the field with my dad, and that translated to the field. I spend all my time doing that."

Jefferson's father, Shawn Jefferson, is an NFL wide receivers coach himself for the New York Jets. Beyond obvious family ties, Jefferson knows how valuable that relationship is as he makes the leap to pro football.

"Everybody knows that my dad is in the league," Jefferson continued. "They know who he is and everything like that. He taught me everything I know, but they already knew who my dad was, the way my dad teaches me things, we go over coverages, things like that. 

"So I kind of knew some of the stuff teams were asking me already, because of my dad, and because of Coach G [Florida wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales]. Coach G put a big emphasis on knowing coverages. He took the four senior receivers one day, and we all just went over coverages and stuff that we'd be going through, so they've both been very helpful."

For Jefferson, his connection to the NFL, development under Gonzales, and training with a teammate in Cleveland has paid its dividends in Mobile.

Jefferson dominated drills on Wednesday, consistently winning routes in one-on-ones through his releases and in his route breaks. In team drills, Jefferson caught two of three passes thrown his way, with the one incompletion being a deep overthrow.

In one-on-ones and on one of his receptions, Jefferson was frequently being targeted on crossing routes and slants, routes that benefitted Florida quarterback Kyle Trask tremendously during the 2019 season. He also made an acrobatic catch on a deep post route, with a cornerback tight in coverage and a safety closing in front over top. 

Cleveland didn't have as productive of a day, going without a target in team drills. However, he kicked off one-on-one drills with a go-route on an outside release, and his 4.38 40 yard dash speed was evident as he got open.

Cleveland knows how important this opportunity is for his draft stock, given his less-than-stellar production at Florida despite emerging early as a legitimate talent.

"Just coming out here and trying to get better every day," Cleveland told GatorMaven following practice. 

"Trying to go full speed, don't try to think as much. You go out there, and if you make a mistake just come back and try to go full speed again, just to show the scouts that I can play the game at a fast pace. Run routes, catch clean, stuff like that, just trying to work on the weaknesses."

Cleveland acknowledged that, other than his go-route in one-on-one drills, his second day of practice was a bit quiet at receiver. However, the Cincinnati Bengals' coaching staff - who is coaching the South team - knew what they had in Cleveland's size and speed combination, and used him all over special teams. He took reps as a punt returner, a gunner, and a jammer.

"It's a thing I take pride in," Cleveland said of his effort on special teams. "Trying to be more valuable, try to do more things on the field, not just offense. I just work hard, do anything they tell me to do, just go out there and try to make the best of it."

For both Jefferson and Cleveland, being able to play together one last time before entering the NFL is something that they're thankful for. Both recalled the moment when Cleveland got the call.

"I was out in Dallas, in my hotel room, I had just gotten done training at MJP [Michael Johnson Performance], I got a phone call around 5 [P.M.], [Senior Bowl director] Jim Nagy called me and said 'Do you want to play one more football game out here at the Senior Bowl?', I said yes, I was very excited. It just came out of nowhere, I always just kept faith that it might come, I knew it might not, but I always kept faith and it came the day before. I'm thankful and I'm grateful."

Jefferson was already in Mobile at that point, after he and Cleveland had trained together at MJP in McKinney, Texas, just outside of Dallas.

"I've seen Mr. Nagy, and I heard him say something about Tyrie, so I was like, I was trying to creep in to see what he was talking about," Jefferson admitted. 

"Then he looked at me and said 'I invited your boy!', and I asked who and he said 'Tyrie!', and so I went and called Tyrie, I'm like 'Tyrie, where you at?', and Tyrie's already in Mobile, so my man, my dawg is here, so it's just got the week much better, I'm excited to go out there and practice with him for the last time, play in a game with him for the last time, it's exciting."

In a historically deep wide receiver class, both Jefferson and Cleveland know how important it is to leave a good impression on scouts this week at the Senior Bowl. Jefferson has frequently been labeled as a day three pick prior to the event, given the depth of the class, but his performance this week will likely shoot him up draft boards.

"For both me and Tyrie, we're both underdogs," Jefferson told GatorMaven. "We just have to come out there and show that we're the top dogs."

"I just have to go out there and do what I've been doing," he continued. "They have the film, they know what's going on, but I just have to go out there and execute. Just be who I am, don't try to do anything out of the ordinary, just stay to myself and I'll be fine. 

"This is a big experience, a great moment, and I'm blessed to be here, but at the same time, I know what I'm here to do. I'm taking in all of this experience because you don't get to do this often. You only get to do this once in a lifetime, so I'm happy to be here."

Jefferson acknowledged that this event is especially important for Cleveland. With a lack of production and opportunities over the past couple of years, this is Cleveland's only opportunity to show scouts more than what his tape has to offer.

"It's very important, I think Tyrie knows that," Jefferson said. "Me and Tyrie are down at MJP training together. I could just see how Tyrie was down, he was kind of bummed out that he didn't get invited to any bowls, and I just told him to be patient, and now it's his moment and I know he's going to take advantage of it." 

Thursday marks the final Senior Bowl practice prior to the game, which can be seen live on NFL Network on Saturday at 3:30 P.M. ET. 

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